Casa Azteca makes SDSU a reality for Some San Diego Students
A South Bay nonprofit makes SDSU more manageable for at-risk freshmen
Freshman Deniz Delamora Cabore takes a midterm
Eighteen-year-old Kenia Mendiola was intimidated by the prospect of attending San Diego State University. A Sweetwater High School graduate, she’s the first in her family to go to college. A task as fundamental as registering for classes was daunting. How would she navigate that big campus? How would she juggle a full course load in pre-nursing with volunteer work at Paradise Valley Hospital?
“It’s easy to feel lost, in a way,” Mendiola says.
Mendiola is now nearing the end of her freshman year, thanks in part to Casa Azteca, a unique student retention program offered through a collaboration between SDSU, the San Ysidro-based nonprofit Casa Familiar, and San Diego Gas & Electric, which contributed a $25,000 Excellence in Civic Leadership Initiative grant.
Students in the Casa Azteca program are often in college against the odds, according to Casa Familiar’s director of external affairs, Susana Villegas. The primary language in their household isn’t English. They travel long distances by bus or trolley from San Diego’s poorer neighborhoods. They feel pressured by family and culture to let schooling take a backseat to work. Everything is telling them they should drop out.
“These are kids who statistically have the highest dropout rates,” Villegas explains. “Our last class had 46 students. Nobody dropped out. It’s making a big difference.”
Casa Azteca focuses its recruiting efforts on the 92173 and 92154 zip codes, reaching out to graduating seniors at Castle Park, Mar Vista, Montgomery, San Ysidro, Southwest, and Sweetwater high schools.
Casa Azteca starts with the family, offering orientation programs to students and parents alike. “For a student to be successful, parents have to be involved. We’re asking for a minimum of five years of support,” Villegas says. “Part of this, particularly with immigrants, is they’re clueless about how universities work in the U.S.”
To create a sense of community, the students are enrolled in general-education courses together. They’re encouraged to form small study groups, and take advantage of tutoring and peer mentoring by upper-classmen.
“The classes at SDSU can be huge, with as many as 500 students,” says Randy Timm, director of Student Life and Leadership at SDSU and a Casa Azteca instructor. “By putting them in small groups, and offering tutoring and mentoring, we’ve seen an increase in retention and grade point averages.”
Timm is currently teaching Casa Azteca students the basics of peer counseling. They meet in a classroom at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house. These students will go on to become peer mentors for next year’s crop of incoming Casa Azteca freshmen, learning valuable leadership skills while staying engaged in their newfound college community. “They’ve been through the program and they see the worth,” Timm said. “We’re trying to make all students successful.”
The Casa Azteca initiative began two years ago with just 15 students. The 2012-13 class is expected to have 80 students. Someday, with enough funding and resources, Casa Azteca would ideally serve upwards of 450 students, according to Timm.
For students like Mendiola, the Casa Azteca program is invaluable. She’s been set on the right course for a college diploma and a worthwhile career.
“I’ve learned how to be better organized, to have better time management,” she says. “I know Casa Azteca is always something that’s going to be there for me when I’m looking for help.”